Double tragedy for learners in informal settlements amidst pandemic

June 23, 2020

‘Kuja ukae hapa na unisubiri narudi,’ beckons Bahati to his five-year-old sister Malaika as he runs into the obscured sunset to go and buy charcoal to prepare tea which is all that they will have for dinner. Bahati is a class 8 candidate at Holy Trinity primary school in Korogocho, where he lives with his mother and sister. Every day, life in the slum is a struggle and for Bahati, his lifeline lies in fighting poverty that threatens to dim his hopes and those of his sister in these unprecedented times. 

With the closure of learning institutions due to the COVID 19 pandemic, many students around Kenya are forced to find other ways, such as online learning, to continue with their studies. Unfortunately, for Bahati and numerous learners across informal settlements in Nairobi and around the country, the situation is dire as accessing and continuing with their education in these perilous times seems unattainable given the myriad challenges they face. As Mwalimu Julius Nyerere once said, “Education is not a way of escaping poverty but fighting it.”

To ensure learning continues amidst the crisis, the government needs to leverage low-cost technology, and utilize more community-based platforms to reach learners in urban informal settlements and other hard to reach areas. Parental engagement and support are pivotal in ensuring learners are adequately supported throughout the learning process.

In the wake of the pandemic that has nearly brought most nations to a halt, more than 90,000 learning institutions have been closed with over 18 million learners and 300,000 teachers forced to stay at home as part of government’s containment measures. To ensure continuity of learning, the Ministry of Education has instituted several measures to support learning during this period such as broadcasting of education content on local media stations and uploading of study resources on the Kenya Education Cloud and Youtube.

While these efforts may be laudable, many learners are still left behind, especially those in slums, arid and semi-arid lands, and other hard to reach areas. For instance, in the informal settlements across major towns and cities, low-cost private schools popularly known as Alternative Provision to Basic Education and Training (APBET) schools have been unable to continue supporting their learners and are at risk of collapse because they lack sustainable models that may mitigate against such crises. On the other hand, high-end private schools continue to support their learners through virtual classrooms and the provision of online learning material. Such inequities pose a risk in terms of reversal of gains made in access to education, increased rate of enrolment, and progress in improving learning outcomes in Kenya.

According to the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), almost half of all learners in urban informal settlements attend APBET schools. The World Bank further indicates that poorer students and marginalized groups have less access to distance learning opportunities and experience greater learning losses while out of school as opposed to the learners from high-income areas.    

The COVID19 pandemic has brought with it a wave of destruction, anxiety, and irreversible damage. The negative impacts on education and schooling in Kenya include but are not limited to early pregnancies, child labor among others. According to a UN brief on the impact of COVID19, lockdowns and confinement measures come with a heightened risk of children witnessing or suffering violence and abuse. Furthermore, the effects of the pandemic and the prolonged closure of schools might see a spike in the number of school dropouts especially for learners from poor households. The economic downturn is characterized by numerous job losses for many Kenyans, including teachers and parents.

For Bahati, and most slums dwellers, schools offer more than just learning opportunities – they provide learners with meals which they might not have at home, while some offer daycare services for working mothers.

According to the 2019 National Population Census report, 62.5 % of households in urban areas own a functional TV and 54% have access to radios. However, internet access remains low with only 18% of urban households owning a laptop computer or tablet. With limited or no access to the internet and/or TV and radio sets, learners from poor households are disadvantaged.

Most households in the slums are unable to meet their basic needs, given that a majority rely on daily wages from casual jobs which have been adversely affected by the pandemic. Thus, paying for internet, electricity, and mobile data to access online learning resources becomes an additional burden.

The COVID19 pandemic has exposed numerous challenges, opportunities, and lessons for the education sector. With schools scheduled to reopen in September, several measures should be put in place to support Bahati and other disadvantaged learners in the meantime.

Parental engagement is at the heart of supportive learning. Parents should be empowered in their roles to enable them to fully participate and support their children to learn while at home. Empowering parents will further enable them to care for their children especially those with special needs while teaching them life skills that can be acquired at home. The Ministry of Education ought to leverage low-cost technology and more platforms such as local radio stations, SMS, and call platforms to ensure more learners have access to vital learning resources. Further, to cushion learners living in hardship areas like urban informal settlements, and particularly those enrolled in APBET schools, the ministry should consider exploring community-based initiatives that will ensure Bahati, and all other children have access to schools once they reopen.